Evolution of integrated solid waste management systems enhanced with municipal utilities and green energy production

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Courtesy of Waste Advantage Magazine

Much has changed over the past 40 years in the advancement of solid waste management. Early solid waste drivers focused on the top-down tiered approach promoted by EPA, which embraced a hierarchy of integrated waste management practices. These practices promote the following methods (in order of preference) to reduce, reuse, recycle and recover value from municipal wastes:

  • Source reduction and reuse
  • Recycling and composting
  • Combustion with energy recovery
  • Landfilling and incineration without energy recovery

The EPA-preferred strategy is illustrated on the left side of Figure 1, page 28. This illustration depicts the state-of-the-art in the late 20th century with the bulk of the work performed by landfills. Advancing into the 21st century, the pyramid will soon be inverted to advance the goals of reducing the amount of wastes disposed of in landfills. This reduction will be achieved by implementing proven and emerging waste conversion technologies for production of renewable green energy. The use of this green energy may also be used internally, or “behind the meter,” for powering other critical municipal services related to water resources.

There is a growing awareness across the U.S. that the inverted pyramid may not adequately address the true value of waste conversion technologies when viewed in a comprehensive approach based upon a lifecycle environmental and economic assessment. Specific local factors, which may significantly affect the lifecycle of cost/benefit analysis, include: local recycling market conditions, specific waste material content and overall system costs associated with collection, processing, transportation and revenues derived from the sale of recyclables. Equally important are the affects of each alternative, including energy balance (consumption versus generation of energy), air and water emissions, and disposal requirements for process residuals. In summary, the following five emerging paradigms will influence the future evolution of solid waste management industry in the near future:

  1. Increasing landfill diversion and recycling goals
  2. Local, regional and national energy independence goals via clean renewable energy
  3. Growing awareness of sustainability and climate change initiatives
  4. Need for development of alternative water supplies
  5. Need for local sustainable economic development and high-quality jobs

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